Emperor Julian the Apostate

Emperor Julian (A.D. 360-363)

This interesting emperor seems like an early prototype of antichrist. He was raised a nominal Christian, but fell away, fought against his own father, and on becoming emperor he evangelized against Christianity and even persecuted the Church. He was killed in battle against the Persians while trying unsuccessfully to rebuild the Jewish temple.

(Excerpt taken from “The Pelican History of the Church 1, Early Church,” by professor Henry Chadwick, (c) 1967):

[T]he gradual transition from pagan to Christian taking place in high Roman society during the second half of the fourth century….was sharply arrested by the crisis of Julian’s pagan revival (361-3).
Julian had been educated by Christian tutors with liberal sympathies who imparted to him an excellent knowledge of Homer and the Greek classics. In adolescence, living in a country palace in Cappadocia, he turned to theological studies, was baptized, and even became a ‘reader’ in the church. But at the age of eighteen he began to desire more freedom than [his father Emperor] Constantius [half-brother of Constantine the Great] thought it safe to grant a prince.
He also wished to know more of paganism not from old books but from direct contact with its contemporary apologists. At Ephesus in 350-51 he came under the spell-binding influence of a neoplatonic philosopher named Maximus whose magical abilities were such that by burning incense and reciting the proper charm he could make an image of Hecate smile and kindle the torch in her hands into flame.
By 351 the fascinated Julian had secretly abandoned Christianity, and his inward estrangement from Constantius became a smouldering resentment after Constantius had executed his elder brother Gallus for being party to a treasonable conspiracy. Nominated ‘Caesar’ in 355, he was sent to the Rhine frontier to repel German raids. When the army acclaimed him as ‘Augustus’ in February 360, the tension with Constantius led Julian to move eastwards to attack, and the civil war was only arrested by Constantius’ death of fever (3 November 361).
Julian’s accession as emperor had immediate consequences for the Church. As lately as Epiphany 360 he had been attending church services in Gaul, perhaps with an eye to his need for Christian support in the coming struggle with Constantius, perhaps to please his Christian wife Helena, who died childless in 360. In 361 he threw off all secrecy about his support for the old religion and his renunciation of Christianity. Throughout the empire pagan hopes revived…. At first Julian’s formal policy was to reopen and repair the temples, to declare toleration for all, and to oppose Christianity not by force or even argument so much as by ridicule. He was determined to avoid making ‘the Galileans’ [i.e., Christians] into martyrs…. Julian, however, had to repress zealous Christians in Syria and Asia Minor… resulting from the Christian populace’s reaction against the pagan revival…. The clashes between Julian and Christians in the East added a few names to the church calendar of martyrs.
In 363 Julian decided to gain the good will of the Jews. He was already planning a campaign against the Persians, modelled on the Oriental conquests of Alexander the Great whose soul he believed to be reincarnate in himself. The Jewish population along his route would be numerous.
Moreover, although Julian had little but contempt for Judaism, he was well aware that a proposal to restore sacrifices in a rebuilt temple at Jerusalem would touch the Christians at a tender spot. The plan for rebuilding the temple was apparently coupled with a political, quasi-Zionist proposal for the creation of a territorial area in Palestine administered by the Jewish patriarch. The [January 363] rebuilding project, however, was abandoned after an earth tremor.*

*[Much more than that. Note the account of this attempt to rebuild the Jewish Temple given by the ancient historian Ammianus Marcellinus, “terrifying balls of flame kept bursting forth near the foundations of the temple, and made the place inaccessible to the workmen, some of whom were burned to death; and since in this way the element persistently repelled them, the enterprise halted.

And here is what the early church writer St. Gregory Nazianzen reported, “But they being driven against one another, as though by a furious blast of wind, and sudden heaving of the earth, some rushed to one of the neighbouring sacred places to pray for mercy; others, as is wont to happen in such cases, made use of what came to hand to shelter themselves; others were carried away blindly by the panic, and struck against those who were running up to see what was the matter. There are some who say that neither did the sacred place admit them, but that when they approached the folding doors that stood wide open, on coming up to them they found them closed in their faces by an unseen and invisible power which works wonders of the sort for the confusion of the impious and the saving of the godly. But what all people nowadays report and believe is that when they were forcing their way and struggling about the entrance a flame issued forth from the sacred place [church] and stopped them, and some it burnt up and consumed so that a fate befell them similar to the disaster of the people of Sodom, or to the miracle about Nadab and Abihu, who offered incense and perished so strangely: whilst others it maimed in the principal parts of the body, and so left them for a living monument of God’s threatening and wrath against sinners. Such then was this event; and let no one disbelieve, unless he doubts likewise the other mighty works of God! But what is yet more strange and more conspicuous, there stood in the heavens a light circumscribing a Cross, and that which before on earth was contemned by the ungodly both in figure and in name is now exhibited in heaven, and is made by God a trophy of His victory over the impious, a trophy more lofty than any other!

Ephream the Syrian also corroborated these accounts in his poetic work, Hymns against Julian.]

Since Julian’s plans included the abolition of financial support for the patriarchate from the Jews of the dispersion, perhaps the enthusiasm of the Palestinian Jews themselves was lukewarm. The alliance, however, between the apostate emperor and Judaism had unhappy consequences for the Jews, who were remembered to have cooperated with the anti-Christian government in a way that was all too reminiscent of early persecutions.
To encourage paganism Julian discriminated against Christians in making appointments to high office in the civil administration and army. Apostasy became a particular recommendation for preferment, and a number of nominal Christians availed themselves of the chance. Feeling it to be insufferable that Christians should teach the pagan classics without believing in the myths of the gods, he issued a formal edict excluding Christians from the profession, a decision which was regarded as folly by pagans like Ammianus the historian, and was resented by cultivated Christians like Gregory of Nazianzus who understood and loved the classical literary tradition fully as well as Julian.
… Julian travelled round the Greek East preaching the gospel of polytheism to Christian city councillors with passionate fervour and without the least sense of reserve or dignity; his behaviour provoked ridicule to which he did not know how to reply. Of Cappadocia he complained that the province was so predominantly Christian that the few who wished to offer pagan sacrifices no longer knew how to do it. At one Mesopotamian town he visited, the pagan council was so over-anxious to please that the air became foggy with the clouds of incense, and Julian felt that the ritual was amateurish and overdone.
Taking seriously his position as pontifex maximus, Julian set about the reorganization of paganism. He saw that it could only meet the Christian attack by modelling itself on its hated opponents. His friend Sallustius composed a short (extant) catechism of pagan dogma. High priests, nominated by Julian, were to fulfil the function of Christian metropolitans. There was to be a system of stipends for priests who would preach sermons and organize works of charity for the poor: ‘No Jew is ever seen begging, and the impious Galileans support not merely their own poor but ours as well.’ The standing and moral character of the pagan priests also had to be sharply raised. Like the Christian clergy, they were required to keep away from obscene shows, taverns, and all disreputable employment. Within the temples the priests would be expected to exercise authority. Following Christian custom, they were not to allow high officials to be preceded into temples by soldiers, and should remind dignitaries that the moment they entered a temple they were only private citizens. Julian’s personal practice was to offer sacrifices every day. Before important decisions he consulted augurers and soothsayers, a considerable corps of which attended on him during his Persian expedition.
The ardour with which Julian devoted himself to the reconstruction of paganism was regarded by many who were not Christians with a detachment and incomprehension that saddened the emperor’s heart. The execution of animals for his sacrifices was on so large a scale as to affect the economic of the meat market in some areas. The highly strung emperor could only ascribe the lack of sympathy he received to the ‘corrupting folly’ of the Christians. Yet even pagans who felt that Julian was ridiculous in taking soothsaying so seriously were sincere in support of the attempt to preserve the threatened past. Julian’s friend Libanius was a man more aesthetic than religious feeling and sensitivity; but he was appalled by the vandalism which destroyed beautiful temples and idols.
Julian completely identified himself with his religious, cause. To both Christian and pagan he personified the polytheistic tradition, the revival of which stood or fell with his endeavours. The Persian campaign, guided by the emperor’s diviners and soothsayers, was to be the vindication of the old gods as the true givers of military success. The campaign was foolishly conducted without proper attention to lines of communication or the risk of encirclement. On 26 June 363 in a desperate melee Julian was fatally wounded by a lance in his side. How it happened nobody was sure, and different accounts circulated from the start. But the most widespread opinion was that the lance belonged to an incompetent or disaffected soldier in Julian’s army, or to an auxiliary Saracen [Arab]. A story already circulating in the bazaars of Nisibis when Julian’s corpse was carried there was that the emperor had thrown away his life almost suicidally when he realized that the army’s position was hopeless. Five years later Libanius attributed responsibility to the Christians.

Certainly the Christians did nothing whatever to conceal their jubilation at the apostate’s fall, and this very obvious absence of regret made it natural that they should have been credited with a deliberate act of homicide, which some of the more zealous among them would unhesitatingly have defended as an act of justifiable resistance to the tyranny of Antichrist. But among the numerous contemporary accounts it is only Libanius who suggests that ‘probably’ a Christian killed Julian; and even he proposes it as no more than a likely hypothesis. The pagan historian Arnmianus Marcellinus regarded it as simply a tragic accident caused by carelessness. According to a member of Julian’s pagan bodyguard the mishap was caused by an envious evil spirit.

Of the dying emperor’s last words there were also divergent accounts and an early crop of legends. One early fifth-century source gives the quite plausible story that Julian flung blood from his wound up at the sun-god with the bitter words ‘Be satisfied’. Theodoret of Cyrus, writing in 450, is the first to attest the famous but implausible version that as he threw his blood in the air he cried ‘Galilean, you have conquered’ [Vicisti, Galilæe!].
Although the collapse of Julian’s pagan revival was a bitter blow to the adherents of the old polytheism, his voice did not cease to speak after his death. His letters and religious discourses continued to circulate widely. More than fifty years after his death Cyril of Alexandria felt it necessary to write a long answer to Julian’s tract ‘Against the Galileans‘.
In pagan memory Julian remained the ideal saint. In his memorial oration (about the end of 365) the orator Libanius claimed that Julian had been received to divine rank in heaven and that devout souls were already being granted answers to the prayers which they addressed to him.


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